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“Great artists in and of themselves on TV do not necessarily bring eyeballs or ratings. It’s really more about the brand, and what we do in those three and a half hours.”

THE REAL NEIL

Recording Academy Chief Talks Grammys,
Lets His Hair (and Underwear) Down

Hard to believe this will be the 11th Grammys ceremony presided over by Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow, who has ushered the Awards show into a golden era, last year notching the second-highest viewing audience ever, topping the Academy Awards for the first time and generating a record number of social media responses. With less than two weeks to go, the unflappable Portnow is cool, calm and collected, until HITS’ resident party pooper Roy “Killjoy” Trakin showed up to grill him on this year’s 55th Annual shindig, live from Staples Center, on Feb. 10.

Seems like a wide-open field of contenders this year.
I call it the tried-and-true and the new. We see the show as edu-tainment, a combination of education and entertainment. As an Academy, we have a historical perspective, the full spectrum of music. If there are opportunities to bring those things together which might teach or educate, we do that. And then there are our famous Grammy Moments, either the “pass-the-torch” parings or the unique collaborations, which might be cross-genre or unpredictable. We’ll be chock full of those this year.

It will be difficult to duplicate last year’s high drama of Adele’s coronation and her return from throat surgery.
It’s a little different this year, where you have a group of emerging artists vying in the general categories. As we roll out the bookings, there will be more narrative threads which go along with that. We have reached a point where we are beyond the cast of characters in any given year. The Grammys have become a “must-see” water cooler conversation that takes place in the moment, during the event itself.

And that’s the result of social media.
From not being in the game at all to today, we would be considered a leader in social media as far as awards shows go. Last year, we had more people talking Grammy than any show in the history of television. And that wasn’t an accident. We’ve been working at this for years with our partners at CBS and Chiat/Day. Great artists in and of themselves on TV do not necessarily bring eyeballs or ratings. It’s really more about the brand, and what we do in those three and a half hours.

With all that live tweeting, isn’t it about time the Grammys aired live on the West Coast?
We actually think there’s something to be said about doing it the way we do, so we can take advantage of that word-of-mouth. The East Coast is watching in real time and simultaneously talking about it all across the country. Still, we’re a fresh canvas every year, so that could well change. We have a different network partner than either the Oscars or the Golden Globes. We’re with the market leader. It’s more difficult for them to pre-empt an extra hour of primetime.

LL Cool J will host for the second consecutive year. Is it because of his relationship with CBS?
If we didn’t have him right there as host for last year’s show, it would have been very challenging to figure out how to deal with Whitney Houston’s passing. It was his own instinct and gut to do a prayer. That just came out of his mouth. He said, “If it were my home, we’d say a prayer.” It was so genuine. Last year, he knocked it out of the ballpark, and we’re thrilled that he wanted to do it again this year. That he is in our partner network’s family is a convenience, of course. Pierre Cossette used to say, “If you don’t have a host that can do it, you don’t need a host.” We had to find someone who could do it. You want someone who has empathy and understanding of music, musicians and the creative process. LL Cool J gets what we do and everybody we work with gets him.

How do you feel about events that tie in to Grammy Week, but are not official Recording Academy promotions, like Lucian Grainge’s Saturday afternoon talent showcase?
Part of the idea of Grammy Week was to provide an umbrella for music people to come together and celebrate music, some of it produced by the Academy, but the majority not. The spotlight is on us that week as an organization to showcase the many things we do…music preservation, education, technology. We welcome other organizations and companies that want to take advantage of the occasion.

With Bruce Springsteen this year’s MusiCares honoree, you couldn’t coax out an Album of the Year nomination for him?
I’m a Recording Academy voting member, but I don’t vote. This is a little bit of a reflection of what’s happening with the membership, which is skewing younger, thanks to projects like our Grammy University Network, which now has 5,000 members in about 300 different colleges. We’ve been striving to improve our diversity in gender, genre, ethnicity and age, and I think the nominations reflect that.

What will be your Academy message?
We will be announcing, for the first time, that the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation will jointly honor a music educator of the year next February. We want to recognize a great teacher as an unsung hero in encouraging people to get into this business. We’re going out a year in advance to get nominees from the general public.

What are the big-picture goals for the Grammys looking at the next decade?
One of the things I’ve been working on is the development of the brand, which is one of the most respected and well-known in the world, representing excellence in music. Our show is seen in almost 200 countries. We have a very successful relationship with Gucci for beautiful digital watches. A hotel could make a lot of sense with the right partner and design, showrooms to present live music. Launching music education projects in countries like the U.K. and China.

Who will you be wearing this year…your bar mitzvah tuxedo?
The best part is it still fits. When I first got the job, I had a friend who was dating someone who was a manager at Brioni, and they had some beautiful, timeless stuff. I’ve worn that tuxedo only 10 times, each year of the Grammys, out of sentimentality. I also wear my dad’s watch. He’s not with us, so he’s represented on-stage. This year, because of our relationship with Gucci, I picked out a midnight blue tuxedo. So, we’re going a little different. I’m wearing a long tie to match the silk around the lapels…and no underwear.

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